National Geographic On Assignment
At a west Florida intersection, where the 21st century runs headlong into 1947, is a roadside attraction that must be seen to be believed. There are no Disney cartoon characters or underwater mannequins, but living, breathing, bubble-blowing mermaids just an hour drive north of Tampa.
Weeki Wachee Springs attracts tourists from around the world, and during its heyday attracted celebrities including Elvis Presley. But in recent times the park has fallen into disrepair and is faced with a few financial and political woes. Now the mermaidsnew and oldare fighting to save what they say is a Florida landmark.
The mermaids are highly endangered. Fewer than 20 people in the country do this for a living, and all of them are right here at Weeki Wachee.
"We breathe underwater. That's what mermaids do," said Krista Lewis, a mermaid in training. "We're half fish, half human."
Weeki Wachee is a throwback to an era when vacations meant the parents packing up the car and heading out for a couple weeks for 3,000 (4,800 kilometers) of driving around the country. Roadside attractions were the only way to keep kids from having a backseat meltdown.
Weeki Wachee is a theater built into a natural springallowing the audience to walk into an underwater world without getting wet. With today's environmental laws, there will probably never be another place like it in the U.S.
A Unique Playground
Clad in their iridescent Lycra tails, the mermaids perform choreographed routines and stories and are sometimes joined by fish, turtles, and manateescreatures that some say inspired the original mermaid legends.
"Sometimes I feel as if I might really be a mermaid. Some days are better than others, and you don't really feel like you need breaths as much as other times," Lewis said. "I love the swimming aspect especially on sunny days, it's so beautiful. And knowing that people in there are watching you sometimes you do feel as though it's like a real thing."
The geology of Florida makes Weeki Wachee a unique playground. The state is a patchwork of springs that discharge fresh water from underground aquifers. Weeki Wachee's springs pump out more than 60 million gallons (227 million liters) of water every daythat's 740 gallons (2,800 liters) per second. Diving down a little over a 100 feet (30 meters) into the throat of the spring is like trying to swim headfirst through a Jacuzzi jet.
Manatees and turtles were the only residents of Weeki Wachee until 1947, when an ex-Navy frogman named Newt Perry combined his military experience and a natural inventiveness to create Weeki Wachee's first underwater show.